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Natasha Lyonne Explains How She Spent Decades Preparing to Make ‘Russian Doll’ Season 2

As she takes over as showrunner, Lyonne explains to IndieWire why her vision for the series was years in the making.

Natasha Lyonne attends Netflix's "Russian Doll" season one premiere at Metrograph on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Natasha Lyonne attends Netflix’s “Russian Doll” Season 1 premiere at Metrograph

Andy Kropa / Invision / AP

To grasp the level of commitment that Natasha Lyonne brought to the second season of “Russian Doll,” it makes little sense to rehash the tired survival narrative dredged up in countless profiles about how she overcame her drug years, an estranged relationship with her late parents, and the string of underwhelming acting gigs that followed “American Pie.” 

Lyonne’s struggles have been a matter of public scrutiny for years. However, this personal understanding of her career trajectory tends to treat her latest act, as the co-creator and now sole showrunner of “Russian Doll,” like a sudden manifestation of latent creative talent. The truth is that the metaphysical sci-fi puzzle pieces of “Russian Doll” have been percolating in Lyonne’s aesthetic evolution for years, and with the second season, she finally got the chance to assemble them on her own. 

“Working through the challenges of this show is the happiest I’ve been in my life,” Lyonne said in an interview over Zoom, as she recounted a nearly 40-year career in show business. “I’ve had this dream of ‘Russian Doll’ in my mind for decades. Because I was in the business of the language of movies from six or seven years old, I was always cataloguing scenes or vignettes, then sort of staging them.” 

In that sense, “Russian Doll” unleashes the essence of a full-fledged auteur whose body of work was years in the making, even when her career stalled. Her raspy-voiced “Russian Doll” hedonist seems so closely patterned on her erstwhile real-life persona that it can be easy to assume they’re one and the same. But Lyonne extracted what she needed to create such a singular character. “I mixed up the high and low in my own life, but I’ve had enough time to make peace around that,” she said. “My willingness for transparency is really only an effort to create something that hopefully feels more universal.” 

Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in episode 201 of Russian Doll. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll”

Courtesy of Netflix

With Season 2, Lyonne took over as showrunner from Leslye Headland, and also directed half of the new episodes. The result builds on the “Groundhog Day” time-loop conceit of the first season, in which Nadia died again and again on the same damn day, but it’s also a detour. The arc of the season pushes Nadia’s personal reckoning in an even more complex direction, one informed by the history of post-Holocaust Jewish-American identity and Borscht Belt comedy traditions as much as its grimy downtown New York mileu. It’s the ultimate sublime-ridiculous juggling act, as even the funniest moments are tinged with a sense of melancholic desire to find one’s place in a universe of indifference. 

Once again, Lyonne’s freewheeling Manhattanite Nadia and her time-jumping pal Alan (Charlie Barnett) are thrust into a bizarre state of temporal confusion that forces them to confront their past and present in unique ways. The sense of scale in this season shows the confidence of a fully-realized storyteller who maintained her exacting vision on both sides of the camera. 

“The closest point of comparison I would make with her is David Fincher,” said Chloe Sevigny, her longtime friend and co-star who reprises the role of Nadia’s mother Leonora this season. Sevigny, who worked with Fincher on “Zodiac,” collaborated more closely with Headland on the first season of “Russian Doll” but said she marveled at Lyonne’s directorial instincts this time around. “Fincher was tough on the crew because he wanted everybody to be really there. I saw that in her,” Sevigny said. “He focused on this kind of perfectionism. She had a similar kind of passion on set. And Fincher didn’t have to act!”

Lyonne herself sounded exhausted by the process, which at one point found her learning how to speak Hungarian for a key sequence set in Budapest. “It was a nightmare,” she said. “I was the showrunner, dealing with spreadsheets, Hungarian budgets. Everyday, we’re shot-listing, storyboarding, and I didn’t speak a lick of Hungarian.” 

Her fellow director this season, Alex Buono, encouraged her to go for it, but she worried that he envisioned the scenes as similar to the parodic bits of “Documentary Now!”, which he developed with Bill Hader and Lyonne’s ex, Fred Armison. “I kept saying, ‘Alex, this isn’t some Bill and Fred shit,’” Lyonne said. “It can’t be an impression of Hungarian. I’m going to have to be like Dustin Hoffman in Hungarian! And he was like, ‘That is the real shit! You can do this!’” 

She worked through the cadences with an acting coach, Terry Knickerbocker, as well as Hungarian actress Éva Magyar. “We just kept fucking hammering it and hammering it,” Lyonne said. “We’d be on fucking tech scouts and I’d be working on it with the first AD.”

Such multitasking was essential to Lyonne’s process as she contemplated the focus of this season, which finds Nadia exploring the nature of her European heritage. And it’s in this context that some knowledge of her backstory helps, since like Nadia, Lyonne’s grandparents were Hungarian Holocaust survivors. “The thing that’s so annoying about therapy is that they always want to talk to you about this matrilineal business,” Lyonne said, but admitted that looking at her family history in this context gave her the hook she needed to distinguish Season 2 from the previous one.

“You really have to use that specificity, especially now that everyone’s dead,” she said with a chuckle. “But I heavily fictionalized around my family. I think that there’s questions around that time I’m very moved by more globally: What it is the tether from Hitler to all of us? Like, we throw around Hitler so loosely in modern times. Hitler’s almost a punchline. There was this whole generation of children of Holocaust survivors who really come by their case study very honestly.” 

Like Nadia, Lyonne zips through loopy monologues littered with the hints of big ideas as she grasps for the grand design of this new season. “I guess my question, from a genetic PTSD standpoint is, ‘How is historical, familial, epigenetic trauma present with us in the room even when you’re…you know, whatever, like, telling some guy you’re not ready for a relationship.’” 

In other words: Every ephemeral interaction with another person is informed by profound historical events. “And in a way, is that not time travel?” Lyonne asked. “That’s the question I’m posing for all of us as a society and trying to use this very narrow case of Nadja and Allen as the counterpoint. If she’ s red hot, he’s blue-cold, but there’s this idea that they’re one and the same.”

Lyonne has been pondering weighty questions about the meaning of everything for the duration of her professional career. Tamara Jenkins recalled that the 19-year-old actress showed up on set for “Slums of Beverly Hills” with Nietzche books under her arm. “She was really intellectually curious and so young to be like that,” Jenkins said. “She was this small person with big brain.” 

Jenkins confessed that when she read an early draft of “Russian Doll” Season 1 years later, she couldn’t grasp the tone. “When I finally saw it, the antic wildness made sense,” she said. “I had to see the lines colored in for it to become vaudeville existentialism, this amazing hybrid of philosophical and kinetic and Jewish stuff. It was a very pure expression of her soul.” 

Russian Doll. (L to R) Balázs Czukor as Kristof, Greta Lee as Maxine, Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in episode 204 of Russian Doll. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Greta Lee and Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll”

Courtesy of Netflix

Lyonne said her storytelling aspirations benefitted from the lengthy timeline leading up to the show. Producing and directing in her early 40s gave her more insights into the existential anguish that Nadia feels after dying thousands of times in the first season. With Season 2, the character is still adjusting to that traumatic experience as she faces a much bigger question about whether she can change the destiny of the world around her. A little autobiography crept in there, too. “The deeper nature of mortality becomes a question of time,” Lyonne said. “Once you’ve figured out how to stop, whatever, in my case, shooting drugs and dying, you’re faced with this whole new proposition, which is caring about other people and yourself.”

As an actor, she learned to display new levels of vulnerability on camera. “My whole career, I’d never been to acting school, and I didn’t know how to cry on cue,” she said. “It was always a mystery to me. I didn’t know I could do it.” Behind the scenes, the production regularly threatened to wear her down, especially as COVID-related shutdowns dragged out production across two years. “I kept thinking, for the love of Christ, to make these days, I am not going to be the squeaky wheel of this production,” she said. “There were times where I felt like Linda Hamilton in ‘The Terminator.’ I would wake up and listen to George Harrison to try to get into a mellow state of mind while doing pushups to stay fit. It was a real duality. It was like, ‘Get your head in the game kid! Get your body flowing! We’re going to be up and down a lot of subway steps today!’”

That intense work ethic was the result of a desire to direct that started as early as when she played Woody Allen’s daughter in “Everyone Says I Love You,” and realizes that might sound off to some people now. “Although it might not be trendy, it felt pretty big to be working with Woody Allen and playing his daughter,” Lyonne said. “Then it was like, OK, time for Tisch.” 

Lyonne enrolled in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts shortly after “Slums of Beverly Hills,” but dropped out in the first year. Originally, she said, she intended to major in film and philosophy. “I decided I could play this sort of witty game where I study all this philosophy and combine it with Bergman and Fellini and De Palma,” she said, ticking off countless cinematic reference points for her work. “I’ll be in New York, so we’ll kick out the hits with Dianne Wiest and Max Von Sydow. Then I got pretty dramatically waylaid. Now, like 25 years later, I’m finally circling back to all that.” 

Lyonne first got the chance to test out her filmmaking acumen with the 2017 Kenzo-produced short “Cabiria, Charity, Chastity,” a Fellini-inspired lark starring Maya Rudolph as a wayward clown. (She now runs a production company with Rudolph called Animal Pictures.) Lyonne’s penchant for magical realism comes across well enough, but “Russian Doll” merges it with a penchant for the shaggy-dog naturalism of American cinema in the 1970s. “Nadia has such a laidback, Elliot Gould-Phillip Marlow-Altman-fuckin-whatever thing going on,” Lyonne said. “She’s got that real sort of back-fuck quality to her, this mumblefish laziness.”

Another way of putting it: Nadia is a full-fledged creation, not a pure reflection of Lyonne herself. In a recent WGA event at the SVA Theater, she went on a tangent about how the recurrence of that assumption. “It’s not like I went, ‘Put some fucking trace paper over my past, and there ya go, some fucking episodes!’ What are ya, nuts?” she said. “I do wonder if it’s because I’m a woman. Like, oh, but you must have gone through it, right cutie? Yeah, I guess I did, you’re right, officer. Fucking minimizing as shit!”

Jenkins said that the essence of Lyonne’s writing and directing work had more to do with the way she embodied such a smorgasbord of reference points. “It’s this beautiful performance art,” Jenkins said. “It’s just taking all the different mediums that she has been exposed to — as an actor with a comic sensibility and intellectual pursuits — and then her personal history, and putting it all in this blend with her Borscht Belt humor and sensibility and having it come out as this thing. It’s not just autobiographical. It’s been mined, shaped, and it has mutated. She’s creating her own narrative boldness.”

That looks to continue beyond the exploits of a Hungarian-American New Yorker suffering through the whims of time travel. Lyonne is eager to get rolling on directing her first feature, a project inspired in part by “Paper Moon” as well as the time her family spent in Israel. “The happiest I am is directing, just in terms of what I think my natural wiring is,” she said. “I have rolodex of images I’ve been cataloguing — books and movies and experiences.” 

Her exploration of identity and the boundaries of time have led to some other oddball expectations about her future. “I have a personal goal of becoming a cyborg,” she deadpanned. 

Wait. Seriously? “I am not kidding,” she said. “I want it badly. I want the ability to look forward and backward at the same time. I wanna be like the first working actor who has a Terminator face with the red eye.”

For now, though, she has embraced the physical endurance test of creating new work. “I’m very happy on a set,” she said. “It’s the area where most of my defects become assets. I’m very spent at the end of the day. It’s so crazy how satisfying it is to just look at the monitor. It was a shit-ton of work and I can’t believe we did it.” And perhaps that’s where the real autobiography enters into the equation: “Russian Doll” is a reflection of the extreme desire to put it all together. “In this weird way, it’s this kind of hero’s journey,” Lyonne said. “The only way out is through.”

“Russian Doll” Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 20 on Netflix.

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